Between the Sea of Okhotsk and the North Pacific, there is a tiny chain of islands known as the Kurils. Normally, this small chain of ancient volcanic peaks would be of little interest to most people, aside from geologists, anthropologists and the like. Together with the Sakhalin Islands, the Kurils are part of the Russian region of Sakhalin.
Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands are a mystery to archaeologists and historians. Despite several discoveries dating as far back as the Paleolithic age (ca. 10 - 30,000 years ago), historians still know very little about the early inhabitants of the Kurils. We do known that, in the 1600s, Ainu were living in the southern portion of Sakhalin and on the southern Kuril Islands. Nivkhs were living in northern Sakhalin.
Russian explorer, V.D. Payarkov, discovered the northern coast of Sakhalin in 1645. Another pioneer, V.V. Atlasov, discovered the Kuril Islands in 1697. Russian exploration of the northern sections of Sakhalin and the Kurils continued on into the 1700s. At the same time, Japan was exploring and settling the southern areas establishing factories and fishing communities. This co-exploration and settlement caused an over 300 year land dispute between Russia and Japan.
The Russian-Japanese border has been in a state of constant flux. Russia gave the Kuril Islands to Japan, in 1875, in exchange for sole possession of the island of Sakhalin. Tsar Nicholas II and Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and lost the southern portion of Sakhalin to Japan. During Russia's turmoil years of 1918 - 1922, Japan occupied Vladivostik and the northern region of Sakhalin.
The Soviet Union was a member of the Allied countries in WWII. Stalin's focus was in Europe and destroying Hitler and the Nazi threat. After the Yalta Conference (1945) and the Allied decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, Stalin declared war on this country. As a result of the Allied victory over Japan, the Soviet Union took back southern Sakhalin and all of the Kuril Islands. The southern Kurils; Etoforu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets; were home to some 15,000 Japanese. In 1947, Stalin ordered the Japanese out, forcing them to migrate south to Japan.
Stalin's seizure of the Kuril Islands, prevented the signing of a Soviet - Japanese WWII peace treaty. The Soviet Union refused to give back any or all of the islands for fear of setting a presentence and encouraging China to push her claims in the ongoing Sino-Russian border disputes. Stalin wanted to hang on to the Kurils for strategic purposes. The Soviet Union used the islands as part of their antisubmarine warfare mission to guard the mouth of the Sea of Okhotsk.
During the leadership of Nikita Krushchev, Moscow and Tokyo established diplomatic ties (1956). Kruschev promised to give up Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands only if the two nations signed a peace treaty. Soviet-Japanese relations warmed a bit during Mikhail Gorbachev's term in office. Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze (currently president of Georgia) visited Tokyo (Jan. 1986) and Gorbachev assigned a Japanese speaking ambassador to Japan later the same year. This proved to be only a momentary period of goodwill with little, if any, progress in overall relations made. By 1989, Soviet trade with Japan remained far below its potential, given the Japanese need for energy and raw materials available from the Soviet Union and Gorbachev's desires to import technology to modernize the Soviet economy. (Tokyo Declaration; May 5, 1986)
At the same time, up and coming Party member, Boris Yeltsin, created a plan for dealing with Japan and the territorial disputes. Gorbachev envisioned discussions which would lead to a peace treaty and the return of the Kurils to Japan. When Yeltsin became president of Russia, these peace talks continued. The main point that Russia insisted on was increased commercial trade between Japan and Russia. Japan refused, stating that she would increase trade only after the Kurils were returned to her and Russia recognized Japan's sovereignty. Russia offered to give back only two of the Kuril Islands. These failed efforts with Japan drew harsh criticism for Yeltsin at home. It got so bad that Yeltsin's Security Council cancelled his trip to Japan in 1992.
In 1996, Russia entered into an agreement with the U.S. and Japan for the joint funding and construction of a liquid nuclear waste treatment ship. The issue of fishing rights remained stymied and Russian border troops continued to attack Japanese fishing vessels who ventured into Russian waters. Japan wanted to extend a 200 mile economic free zone around its coastlines. Given the close proximity of Japan to Russia, the latter found this to be unacceptable. During the 1997 G-7, Yeltsin and then Japanese premier Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000.
Today, President Putin is faced with this ongoing and seemingly endless Russian - Japanese dispute. Japan wants back the four southern Kurils; namely Etoforu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets. Russia continues to insist that discussion of the return of any islands will come only after a peace treaty is signed. Japan stands just as firm on her position that there can be no treaty without, first, the return of the islands in question.
After three days of talks in Tokyo (Sep 3-5, 2000), the two nations were no closer to resolving the Kuril Islands issue. They did sign over fifteen, non-controversial agreements, most of which had to do with the environment and the disposal of Russia's deteriorating nuclear submarine fleet. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori desperately needed a victory as his popularity ratings, in Japan, are very low. For Putin and Russia, the lack of a treaty meant it was highly unlikely that Japan would be interested in any economic assistance to or increased trade with Russia. At this time, Japan invested roughly $5 billion in Russia as compared to $60 billion in China.
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